The skeletal remains of an 8,500 year old man found in Washington in 1996 have recently undergone DNA sequencing, revealing for the first time that he was a member of an indigenous Native American population.
Found in the Columbia River nearly 20 years ago, Kennewick Man has been in secure storage in Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture while the remains underwent exhaustive research over the decades. The new revelation of his ethnic heritage may pave the way for his remains to be repatriated to contemporary Native American populations – efforts that have been stymied by legal disputes regarding Kennewick Man’s ancestry until now.
Eske Willerslev, a scientist from the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for GeoGenetics that led the research team that conducted the genome mapping, said the resultant data “clearly shows that Native Americans of today are [Kennewick Man’s] closest living relatives”, according to a report from CBS News. The study took into account genetic sampling from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, one of the five tribes in the area that have sought to have Kennewick Man’s remains relocated to a more appropriate resting place. While the other four tribes did not contribute genetic material for testing Willerslev remarked that all five have a long history of intermarriage, leading him to believe that Kennewick Man could share genetic traits with the other tribes as well.
The need to determine Kennewick Man’s ethnicity rises from a 2004 legal decision in favor of a group of eight scientists that brought a lawsuit against the repatriation of his remains on the grounds that there was insufficient proof to definitively declare his ethnicity. The lawsuit proved controversial and especially damaging to the relations between local tribes and the anthropological community, prompting more detailed analysis to put the question to rest for good.
That question seemed to be answered in a 2014 study that determined Kennewick Man had physical characteristics consistent with ancient Polynesian and Japanese Ainu peoples, but the lack of DNA analysis left the door open for additional work. Scientists at first thought that the degradation of the remains had destroyed any available DNA to be sequenced, but new advances in genetic testing technologies employed by the Centre for GeoGenetics were able to extract a viable sample from just 200 millimeters of bone from Kennewick Man’s hand.
While this may seem to be the end for the argument that Kennewick Man has no relation to modern local tribes, the stringent requirements that need to be met under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act could still delay repatriation. Thanks to the uncertainty of the study in not being able to pinpoint a specific tribe that he belonged to, Kennewick Man’s final resting place may not be determined for some time.
For more information: www.nature.com
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: LavaBaron